Hawaii: Spectacular Volcanic Landscapes and Endangered Island Endemics

This is a Birding Tour. It is designed to see as many birds as possible, with a particular focus on the endemics and ABA specialties. Photography is welcome as long as it doesn’t interfere with the birding.

Hawaii is familiar to many in North America, being a US state. However, the archipelago has also been familiar to wider world birders for years, due to a spectacular set of endemic species/subspecies confined to the islands-currently standing at around 44, many of which are both extremely-endangered, and very local. The state has widened its appeal to North American birders since 2017, with its insertion on to the ABA list. Yes, you can now count Hawaiian birds on your ABA list, which includes not only the endemics, but many other birds too.


The islands are also rightly famous for stunning volcanic landscapes in which to bird in. We will visit three of the islands to search for iconic Hawaiian species, like the spectacular scarlet Iiwi, the odd Akiapolaau (a Hawaiian Honeycreeper with a uniquely-shaped bill), and the Akohekohe, the largest, and most multicolored of this endemic family. Alongside these songbirds are other equally appealing species, like the Nene or Hawaiian Goose, a species that has been brought back from the brink of extinction, the graceful Laysan Albatross, pristine White Tern, and the much sought-after Bristle-thighed Curlew, more readily seen here than in Alaska. On top of this are a series of countable, introduced birds of interest to ABA birders, like Kalij Pheasant, Red-crested Cardinal, White-rumped Shama, Red Avadavat, and Saffron Finch.

The starts out in the state capital, Honolulu, an international hub on the island of Oʻahu, before moving on to the “Garden Isle” of Kauai. The tour then covers one more island in the archipelago, with the Big Island, before returning to Honolulu to finish.

Day 1: Arrival in Honolulu (Oʻahu): After arrival in the state’s capital you will be transferred to a local hotel for the night. The tour kicks off with a welcome dinner on this night. The birding begins the next day, close to our hotel, so if you arrive early there are areas to explore easily nearby. Night in Honolulu (two nights will be spent in this same hotel).

Day 2: Oʻahu. Our birding will start right alongside our hotel, by checking in on the local resident White Terns. While in Queen Kapiʻolani Regional Park to see and photograph these elegant seabirds, we will be on the lookout for other ABA-countable species like Red-crested Cardinal, Yellow-fronted Canary, Common Waxbill, Java Sparrow, and Japanese (Warbling) White-eye. This will be a busy day, with a rush of new birds, as we will also visit another place further north, Kuli’ou’ou Valley Trail for Oahu Elepaio and the beautiful Oahu Amakihi, as well as other birds of interest like White-rumped Shama and Red-billed Leoithrix. We will also be scouring coastal sites on the northern coastline for Bristle-thighed Curlew, as we will be hitting this in the perfect season for them. A second night will be spent in the same Honolulu hotel as the first night.

Oahu Elepaio, one of our targets in the Kuli'ou'ou Valley
Oahu Elepaio, one of our targets in the Kuli'ou'ou Valley (Alan Schmierer)

Day 3: To Kauai. Early in the morning we shall take an early morning flight and swap one island for another, moving northwest to Kauai. After the action-packed day of the previous one, we shall take the pace down a notch, by visiting nearby sites of Kilauea Lighthouse and Hanalei NWR. Our first major stop, at the lighthouse, will be for the subject of one of the greatest conservation success stories of the modern age, the Nene, or Hawaiian Goose. It is the official bird of Hawaii, but was reduced to a mere 30 birds in the 1950s. However, due to captive breeding efforts the population has been raised to some 2,500 birds in the 2000s. While remaining one of the world’s rarest geese, its numbers appear to be more stable now. While we take in this iconic conservation emblem, we will also be on the lookout for other marquee seabirds, like Laysan Albatross, White-tailed and Red-tailed Tropicbirds, and Red-footed Booby. Scaly-breasted and Chestnut Munias also occur in the area around the lighthouse. We shall also explore Hanalei NWR on the north coast, where waterbirds such as Hawaiian Duck, Hawaiian Coot, and ‘Hawaiian’ (Black-necked) Stilt occur, along with Japanese Bush-Warbler. At the end of the day we will settle in for another two-night stay, this time in the small town of Kapa’a, situated at the base of Nounou (“Sleeping Giant”) Mountain.

Hawaiian Goose, or Nene, is the State Bird
Hawaiian Goose, or Nene, is the State Bird (Noah Kahn - USFWS)

Day 4: Northwest Kauai. Today will be one of the major stop-off points of the tour, as we visit the mountains of northwest Kauia, by visiting Kōkeʻe State Park and Alaka’i Wilderness Preserve, which will offer up jaw-dropping endemics, like Kauai Elepaio, Apapane, Iiwi, Anianiau, Kauai Amakihi, and Akekee. At the end of the day we will swap birds for volcanic vistas, with a trip to Waimea Canyon. This red-dirt canyon is nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, and stretches 14 miles long, 3600 feet deep, and is over a mile wide. After a day full of alluring endemics plus classic Hawaiian landscapes, we will return to Kapa’a for a second, and final, night.

Iiwi is one of the most recognizable of Hawaii's endemics
Iiwi is one of the most recognizable of Hawaii's endemics (Gregory Smith - creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

Day 5: To the Big Island. Next up, will be a flight from the northwest of the archipelago to the Big Island in the southeast. We will arrive in Kona on the west side of the island, and make our way north to the town of Kamuela for another two-night stay. As we drive from the airport to our hotel, we will male many roadside stops, searching for Eurasian Wigeon, Pacific Golden-Plover, Gray Francolin, Rosy-faced Lovebird, and Saffron Finch, among others.

Pacific Golden-Plover is a common wintering species
Pacific Golden-Plover is a common wintering species (Nick Athanas)

Day 6: Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge (Big Island). The pace will ramp up today, as we visit one of the key sites of the entire tour, assisted on site by one of the experienced local guides, in search of some of the state’s most endangered species. The upper koa-‘ōhi’a forests there are an important refuge for many endangered species, namely a smart set of Hawaiian Honeycreepers (an endemic bird family), notably the blood-colored Apapane, which roams the forest in small flocks; and the brighter still, Iiwi. These radiant-red honeycreepers are complimented by the rarer still, fiery-orange Hawaii Akepa. Other honeycreepers include the remarkable Akiapolaau, which uses its unique bill (with a massively-oversized, strongly-decurved upper mandible), to probe the moist montane forest trees, much in the manner of a woodpecker. It has filled this niche on Hawaii, which lacks any woodpeckers. Hawaii Creeper is another target there, which is not a traditional treecreeper, but another, (also endangered), Hawaiian Honeycreeper. More abundant in these restricted access, upper forests, is the similar Hawaii Amakihi, and we will listen for its trills as we walk amongst the native trees. It’s will not all be about Hawaiian Honeycreepers though, as an endemic monarch flycatcher, Hawaii Elepaio, also dwells in the forest, and as it is named after its call, we will be birding by ear to pick out the call of Hawaii Elepaio from the forest chorus in order to track down this striking songbird. At the end of a marquee day, with many outstanding endemic birds on offer, we will return to Kamuela for another night.

Apapane
Apapane (Alan Schmierer)

Day 7: Pacific Pelagic. In the morning we will return to the town that we flew into, and take to the sea, for some outstanding, offshore birding. A full day will be spent at sea, exploring the Pacific Ocean offshore from Honokohau Harbor. The exact list of birds is hard to predict, but some of the regularly seen target birds include Great Frigatebird, Red-footed Booby, Buller’s and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, and Juan Fernandez, Hawaiian and Bulwer’s Petrels. Once back onshore, we will drive east to Hilo for another two-night stay.

We should see plenty of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters on the pelagic
We should see plenty of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters on the pelagic (Alan Schmierer)

Day 8: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (the Big Island). An integral part of any Hawaii tour is to see the volcanic landscapes that have made this a firm favorite amongst domestic and international tourists for time immemorial. And, arguably, there is no finer place to see this than on the east side of the Big Island, at the well-named Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is home to two of the most active volcanoes on Earth, Kilauea and Maunaloa, and covers an area extending from sea level up to the summit of the latter at 13,677 feet. This might make it sound like a tough day, but this is not the case, as the famous 10-mile Crater Rim Drive will allow us to encircle the crater of Kialuea by vehicle, making strategic, scenic stops along the way. While vistas is the main objective of our visit, endemic birds may also be seen, like the rare Hawaaian Hawk, the burnt-red Apapane, and trilling Hawaii Amakihi. Kalij Pheasant also occurs in the park and is ABA countable. At the end of a day focused largely on dramatic landscapes, we will make the 45-minute return journey to Hilo for the final night of the tour, where we’ll celebrate a bevy of endemic birds complimented by Hawaii’s iconic landscapes.

Hawaii Amakihi, one of the easier endemics on the Big Island
Hawaii Amakihi, one of the easier endemics on the Big Island (Bettinga Arrigoni - creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Day 9: Departure from Honolulu (Oʻahu). After a morning flight out of Hilo back to O’ahu, the tour finishes at the airport of the capital, Honolulu, which is well connected both domestically and internationally.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early (5:30-6am) starts are the norm on this tour, and a few days will require an earlier start to reach the sites. The drives on this tour are not long, with most under 2 hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Hawaii is a volcanic and mountainous, and to reach some of the remaining endemic birds requires hiking, albeit on largely good trails, most of which have boardwalks. However, there are steep sections in this mountainous archipelago.

CLIMATE: The fall is considered one of the best times to visit Hawaii; temperatures are pleasant (generally ranging between 73.4°F (23°C) and 87.8°F (31°C) in the daytimes in the lowlands). Rainfall is a little higher than in the summer months, but this is also a good time for the excellent pelagic birding in Hawaii, which is the reason for picking these dates. Naturally, mountain weather is cooler than the lowlands, and rain gear, and warm clothes are essential for these parts of the tour, which can be damp and muddy on occasions.

ACCOMMODATION: Very throughout; this is a very comfortable tour with modern amenities everywhere.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, no special requirements are necessary to visit Hawaii. For others, a valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, EU, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan – click here for the full list), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which should be applied for online IN ADVANCE OF THE TOUR. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 9; safe drinking water throughout (the tap water is usually safe to drink; extra bottled water will be provided when necessary; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 (for dinner) to the evening of day 8; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers are usually hotel shuttles that may be shared with other hotel guests); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 8 in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters; flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.